Does Facebook Lift You Up Or Bring You Down?

By Jennifer Nelson 

ThumbsUpOrThumbsDownA University of Michigan study reported in August that Facebook makes users unhappy. The researchers polled 82 college students and concluded that the act of browsing other people’s highlight reels and comparing them to their own humdrum existences led to depression and loneliness. But that study was hardly fair, nor a reasonable representation of the 700 million daily Facebookers.

What the study failed to address was what these “users” were doing on Facebook that made them so unhappy — surfing their News Feeds, playing FarmVille, messaging friends, or stalking their exes. Each brings with it a different experience and, therefore, a different emotional download.

To say Facebook makes you depressed without knowing what about it held that power was akin to saying the Internet causes loneliness without asking respondents just what the heck they are doing out in cyberspace.

Yet supposedly, spending a lot of time on Facebook relates to low self-esteem. The finding parallels the relationship between Internet use and self-esteem, said Dr. Maria Kalpidou, lead researcher on a 2011 study about Facebook among, yes, more college students.

In that study, the number, or lack thereof, of friends was what pulled down the emotional and academic adjustment among first-year students, although it had a positive effect on social adjustment and attachment to institution among upperclassmen.

It seems that friending everyone Facebook users meet is unhealthy, while having a boatload of long-term buddies on Facebook is good for them.

Other studies concluded similarly that friend counts were major social capital, increasing or decreasing one’s sense of happiness accordingly.

Headlines like, “Facebook is bad for you,” “Facebook causes depression,” and “Feeling blue? It’s Facebook’s fault” ran rampant after the Michigan study, so Facebook actually hired its own team of researchers to study the studies.

Moira Burke, who previously studied Facebook while at Carnegie Mellon University and is now a research scientist on the social network’s Data Science Team, found a few flaws to pick at, including the fact that the majority of studies are done with college students, which isn’t a fair representation of all users; that passive Facebook use — for example, endlessly surfing News Feed — was a little like sitting alone in a crowded bar on Valentine’s Day, apt to elicit loneliness; and that viewing friends’ vaction photos seems to just tick everyone off.

Apparently, however, the elderly are having a blast on Facebook, and people who message friends on the social network see their moods improve.

Regardless, Facebook probably doesn’t have the power to either lift us up or pound us down — it’s simply become the scapegoat by which we measure mood, since it’s the most-used social network, to which we’ve all become hyper-connected in unprecedented ways, leaving us to deal with the emotional fallout of jealousy, envy, loneliness, attachment, nostalgia, rejection, and regret concerning those we care about on a 24-hour highlight reel.

Readers: How does Facebook make you feel?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.